Facebook does one thing very well—better, perhaps, than any other social media tool: it enables us to form and cultivate little platoons.
I wanted to get off Facebook—to deactivate my account entirely. It seemed like such a waste of time, a distraction from real-life interactions and relationships. If Facebook no longer pulled at my attention, I thought, perhaps I would be a better friend, and invest in those people who are truly closest to me. I could invest time in the place I live, rather than in a virtual world full of acquaintances and people I barely know.
So I decided to take a break from Facebook to see whether my social relationships would improve or change at all. Before logging off, I let friends know that I’d be away, and gave them my email. It wasn’t really a full “unplugging” experiment, since I use the computer so much for work. But it meant that, in the evenings, I spent much less time online. I occasionally worked on writing projects or wrote emails—but not much else. I wrote long email letters or made phone calls to my closest friends and family members. I continued to use Instagram, but tried to send direct-message pictures to my family, rather than simply using the “public” feature. I marked friends’ birthdays on my personal calendar before deactivating my Facebook account, and tried to email or call them on their birthdays, rather than leaving the prosaic “Happy birthday!” wall post.
Leaving Facebook showed me how much time I do, in fact, rely on it to fill moments of pause. When I sat in the car, waited for the metro, or stood in line, social media was the first thing I turned to. Without Facebook, my fingers itched. What else could I browse—Instagram? Twitter? Anything to feel connected. Anything to pass the time. I realized how frenzied and information-obsessed my brain can become, and made an effort to cultivate quiet, and to appreciate the moments of stillness.
However, despite these advantages, my month away from Facebook wasn’t a time of great awakening, social revitalization, or spiritual growth. Though it did serve a few good purposes, there were also strong disadvantages to leaving Facebook—primarily, the sense of disconnection from family and friends. The world didn’t pause its social media usage when I did: friends would ask me why I hadn’t responded to messages or event invites, whether I had seen this picture or that link. I realized how much I relied on Facebook to get updates from more distant family members or old friends in my home state; though Instagram provided some information, I hadn’t thought about the fact that relationships, engagements, weddings, and graduations are primarily announced (and commented upon) via Facebook.
I began to evaluate my experiment. The thing I craved most about non-Facebook interactions was their closeness, their intimacy and depth. I was tired of the self-aggrandizing statuses, the public displays of affection between couples (or even friends) that would have been more meaningful, at least in my eyes, if shared privately.
But Facebook also does one thing very well—better, perhaps, than any other social media tool: it enables us to form and cultivate little platoons. And this, I realized, was what I had missed in the last month. Though I was able to invest in individual friendships, my lack of Facebook presence made it harder to host events, or to check up on the groups of people who meant so much in my life. I realized that not everyone checks email with the same rapidity I do—but everyone checks their Facebook notifications. I tried to coordinate a dinner with friends via email a few days ago—and only received one reply over the course of the next 48 hours. Then I created a Facebook event, and invited all the same people. They RSVP’d within 10-15 minutes.
I’m beginning to realize that Facebook is the lingua franca of social relationships in our day and age. Perhaps not for all the older generations—but for millennials, most definitely. Casey N. Cep wrote about this for the New Yorker some time ago. She writes of a time when she didn’t use social media—though, she adds, “While I didn’t poke, I did text; I didn’t write posts, but I did send e-mails.” She continues,
In the same antediluvian era, I happened to be travelling abroad, without a computer or a mobile phone, when my grandmother died. When I was finally able to read my e-mail, two days later, and received notice of her death, I was thankful to learn of it, and even more thankful for the airplane that carried me home in time for her funeral, where I could be with family and friends for the service. At that moment, I was also grateful for the very digital devices that I had scorned. When I saw relatives at the service, they wondered why I wasn’t blogging about my adventures or posting more pictures online. Not a single one had received the postcards that I’d mailed from overseas; those would arrive weeks later.
Unplugging from devices doesn’t stop us from experiencing our lives through their lenses, frames, and formats. We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.
We needn’t use Facebook constantly; it’s not really necessary to even write statuses or post links, if you don’t want to. But to see pictures from family members, curate events (or get invited to events), check up on old friends, or connect with new acquaintances, it’s one of the best tools we have.
We live in a technological world, and that fact isn’t changing anytime soon. Perhaps, rather than abstaining from social media altogether, we’d best learn to exercise moderation in our online interactions. It needn’t replace long emails, phone calls, personalized birthday messages, or times of stillness—we just need to exercise the self-control and virtue necessary to limit Facebook, to know when we ought to log out. As Cep put it in her article, “For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”
This article was originally published in The American Conservative. Read Gracy’s other posts over there!
Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.